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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

American core value is under attack

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Dongpil Kim

By Dongpil Kim
The author is the chief editorial writer of the Korea Daily.


The conflict between Israel and Hamas is producing unexpected ripple effects in American society. Tensions are rising because Americans’ long-held values are now being challenged.

The debate starts with freedom of expression. When the Israeli military attacked Gaza in early October last year in retaliation for Hamas terrorism, ‘anti-Israel’ protests erupted at major universities. They demanded an end to civilian casualties. The protests were led by Palestinian students and included radical chants of ‘intifada’ and ‘genocide of the Jews’. The protests did not turn violent, but some conservatives took issue with them, leading to a House of Representatives hearing in early December.

The presidents of three universities – Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania – were called to testify. At the hearing, Representative Elise Stefanik pressed the presidents to ‘answer yes or no’ to whether anti-Semitic hate speech violated their policies.” They avoided answering immediately, that they would have to ‘look at the context’. Notably, then-Harvard President Claudine Gay said, “While anti-Semitic hate speech is inconsistent with Harvard’s values, there is freedom of expression.”

The hearing sparked calls for resignations. Liz McGill of the University of Pennsylvania resigned four days later, and Harvard’s Claudine Gay stepped down on January 2. The ostensible reason for Gay’s resignation was a plagiarism allegation, where in fact it was her failure to take action against anti-Semitic protesters on campus.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay, left, speaks at a congressional hearing on December 5 when asked how she would respond to calls for the “genocide of Jews.” [Screenshot]

However, there are also objections. Critics argue that the First Amendment right to freedom of expression is under threat, advocating that controversial speech has right to be protected unless it causes actual harm. This is why the U.S. is considered one of the countries with the best guarantees of freedom of speech, religion, and academics. They argue that the protesters’ anti-Semitic chants are also free speech. But to remove the president from office for failing to stop them, they say, is unreasonable.

One man played a key role in Gay’s resignation. Bill Ackman, the founder and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management, a hedge fund management company. A Harvard alumnus, Ackman wrote “Et tu, Sally?” on X (formerly Twitter) the day Gay announced her resignation, a parody of the famous “Et tu, Brute?” line. Sally refers to MIT President Sally Kornbluth. Ackman apparently wanted to make the point that of the three presidents at the hearing, only Kornbluth was left to resign.

Further broadening the debate, Ackman has critiqued other values, particularly targeting companies’ DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) policies. Ackman also wrote a lengthy post on X accusing DEI policies of being anti-capitalist. DEI is an ideology that is harmful to capitalism because it calls for equality of outcomes, not equality of opportunity. He claims that DEI is a socialist or communist idea and therefore cannot be an American value. Ackman also disparages Gay as “a person who became president of Harvard because of DEI, not because of her competence.” This is the mindset of a hedge fund billionaire who would even invest in war zones if it meant making a profit.

Many companies have adopted DEI to bolster their competitiveness. Especially in a multiracial and multicultural country like the U.S., it’s not only a business value but a societal one, although it may not make sense to a Wall Street billionaire like Ackman, who already has it all…